The border areas of Pithoragarh witnessed large scale destruction[i] following series of disasters on August 30, 2021 night. The event[ii] unfolded after unprecedented rainfall in the region causing flash floods in local streams and Kali River also known as Sarda. The affected areas included villages in Darchula district of Nepal located across Kali River which forms natural boundary here between India and Nepal.
There were at least two cloud burst incidents and landslides leading to human casualties and much of devastation on both sides of the border. Several buildings at Tapovan colony of NHPC Ltd (formerly known as National Hydroelectric Power Corp Ltd) were also flooded due to formation of an artificial lake across Kali river.
Tapovan colony accommodates NHPC’s Dhauliganga hydro project[iii] office, employees and their family members. The 280 MW (70X4) project also known as Chirkila dam is located near Garguwa village on Dhauliganga river about 20 km upstream from Tapovan Colony.
Dhauliganga as right bank tributary joins Kali river at Tawaghat about 5km downstream of the Chirkila dam site. The power station of the project is located on right bank of Kali river near Jumma village about 5 km downstream Tawaghat.
NHPC’s Tapovan colony is further about 7 km downstream from the power station site. The power station dumps Dhauliganga flows into Elagaad (Kulagad) a local stream merging into Kali river just 100 metre downstream of power station discharge point.
Amid heavy rainfall in the region, a cloud burst[iv] occurred over Jamri and Tarkot hamlets in Jumma village area at around 02:00 am on August 30. The hamlets are located along a hill slope across Elagaad stream close to Dhauliganga power station.
Hindi media report on cloud burst and flash flood in Jumma village, Dharchula and Sirbagad, Nepal along Kali river.
The village is reportedly located on a landslide debris and the loose soil and cracks in rock joints beneath earth facilitated water seepages following incessant rainfall ultimately causing the land subsidence.
A June 21, 2021 video shows landslip after heavy rains damaging a home in same village. The affected villagers had warned[viii] of bigger destruction to hamlets downhill if the problem is not addressed timely by the government.
There have been devastating cloud burst incident in same village area in September 2016 killing 60 cattle and washing away 6 foot bridges and as many water mills.
Around same time, the Sirbagar area under Darchula district of Nepal witnessed another cloud burst incident in which three people were killed and two went missing. The intense rainfall spell caused a landslide in Najyang nala (Kalagad) which joins Kali River hardly 20 mts downstream of Tapovan colony located on opposite bank.
The severe flash flood in the nala dumped huge amount of landslide muck and rubble in Kali River completely blocking[ix] its flows. Following this the water level behind the 200 meter long[x] artificial lake increased dangerously and flooded[xi] NHPC’s residential buildings at Tapovan submerging the entire campus and buildings under 20 meter of water level.
According to reports, first two floors of NHPC’s office and residential buildings went underwater[xii] and the residents spent night on the roof of third flood to save their lives. The gushing debris and sludge damaged about six of NHPC’s buildings at Tapovan.
Media quoted Bhaskar Patani, former geologist of NHPC and member of National Disaster Management Authority that the NHPC colony was built on a vulnerable location. This speaks volumes about NHPC’s site selection methods and competence.
The artificial lake began breaching naturally in the morning, raising flash flood threat[xiii] in downstream areas including Dharchula, Nigalpani, Bulwakot, Kothi and Jauljibi along the river. Locals felt the destruction scale could have been enormous in case the lake had not breached for few more hours.
There is no official information available on damages to the power project. It is assumed that the power station has been affected. Also huge part of road near Chirkala dam has been washed away. The affected families were relocated to another NHPC building in Nigalpani, 7 km from the site.
A motor bridge, four shops and a ranger’s office were washed away in the aftermath. A crusher plant[xiv], a dumper and settlements of Border Road Organization (BRO) again located close to riverbank about 2 km upstream Tapovan colony were damaged[xv] by flash floods while hundreds of its Tar Coal drums and other valuables were buried under the muck.
The flash also damaged about 100 metre road stretch near BRO and large part of its campus. Three vehicles were also swept away by the deluge.
The water level at Banbasa barrage started increasing[xvi] around 09:00 am on August 30 and inflow reached 2.60 lakh cusec around 12:00 pm. The bordering areas were receiving heavy rainfall[xvii] for the past few days and the Kali, Gori, Saryu rivers were already in spate.
Due to bad weather, the Chief Minister could not visit the area and conducted aerial survey[xix] next day. Briefing media on rescue, restoration and relief work, he reportedly announced Rs. 42 crore for building retaining wall[xx] along Kali river.
After June 18, 2021 floods[xxi], the local people had also blamed embankment[xxii], flood protection walls along Kali river by Nepal government reason behind flood damages in and around Dharchula town.
Demanding similar measures on Indian side, they claimed embankments were being built on Indian side in patches since 2013 which were being washed away annually hence proving insufficient to control flood damages.
Nepal had reportedly constructed[xxiii] a 16 metre high, 8 metre wide, 5 km long embankment from Galphain to Bangabagad opposite Dharchula town leading to increase in flood disaster[xxiv], erosion on Indian side.
Earlier, a 48 metre long bridge[xxvii] on Tanakpur-Tawaghat highway got washed away[xxviii] following flood spell in Kulgad river on July 8, 2021. As a result more than 50 villages at Nepal-China border were completely cut off[xxix] from Dharchula.
The incident possibly occurred due to a cloud burst in Nagne Bugyal area, the place of origin Kulgaad stream. In June 2013, a 50 metre road was washed away at the same site following which the bridge was built by disaster management department and BRO.
A cloud burst and high floods in Kali river has devastated[xxx] the project and its ancillary structures of the project including roads, residential and non-residential buildings on June 17, 2013. The flood entered into the power station and submerged all the system halting power generation for days and causing massive damages to NHPC.
The August 30, 2021 incident has once again amply proven how vulnerable are the hydro power projects and associated infrastructures to increasing disasters in geologically unstable region in changing climate.
The construction of massive project has further destabilize already fragile hills and most of the project infrastructure, other government facilities, human buildings have come up in flood prone zone of river thus inviting the disaster.
Meanwhile, NHPC has publicly shared no information on the disaster impact, damages and losses which shows it continues to function in non-transparent, unaccountable, irresponsible manner.
Bhim Singh Rawat (email@example.com)